Willow Garage gets robots into researchers' hands

The company says its open-source PR2 machines are a big step toward all-purpose robots. Now 11 R&D teams from around the world will get a crack at making that happen.

Eric Berger, the co-director of the Willow Garage personal robotics program, demonstrates the flexibility and freedom of movement of the arms of one of the company's PR2 robots. Eleven teams from around the world have won a PR2 for two years of research. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MENLO PARK, California--If you've never seen 11 all-purpose robots doing a choreographed flag-waving dance--and really, who has?--Willow Garage was the place to be Wednesday night.

That's because Willow Garage, a developer of robotics hardware and software, threw a party to celebrate the "graduation" of 11 teams (see video below) from around the world, each of which has won the right to take possession for two years of one of Willow Garage's PR2 open-source robots and work on a series of innovative and unique research projects.

The idea is that each team, using the PR2 robots and Willow Garage's open-source Robot Operating System (ROS), will find its own uses for the platform and will share its work with the entire robotics community, allowing everyone involved to benefit from the research.

The 11 teams--from Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat in Freiburg, Germany; Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stanford University; Georgia Institute of Technology; Technische Universitat in Munich; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Pennsylvania; the University of Southern California; the University of Tokyo; and the Bosch Research and Technology Center--will get a rare chance to spend two years with a PR2. Willow Garage is rolling out the PR2 beta program in hopes that the work done by the 11 institutions will further the field of robotics and, over the long haul, create a wider market for all-purpose robots.

The company was founded with the long-term notion of building that wide market, not with the idea of maximizing short-term profits, said president and CEO Steve Cousins. It's not that Willow Garage is a nonprofit, he added, but that it has been blessed with the financial resources to think about how it can, over a number of years, enable many others to develop innovative robots using its software and hardware. "We want everyone to work together," said Cousins. "We're happy having a smaller piece of the pie, but having the pie be much, much bigger."

Seven degrees of freedom
In a demonstration of the PR2 (see video below), Willow Garage co-directors of personal robotics Eric Berger and Keenan Wyrobek explained that the robot's head features two pairs of stereo cameras, one for wide angles and the other that's focused. The eyes are designed to work like a person's in that they take two pictures of a room and try to find common points on which to triangulate.

The PR2 also has a tilting laser scanner that goes up and down and helps the robot create 3D models so that it can drive around without hitting things.

Inside the base of the robot are two computers, each an 8-core server with 24GB of RAM, and a battery system that is the equivalent of 16 laptop batteries.

The robot's arms, which Berger said "are obviously the things that effect the world the most," have seven degrees of freedom and a gripper that itself can open and close. Also, the robot's head can go up, down, left, and right. And its base can go forward, backward, and sideways, and can turn in place.

Today, a PR2 runs about $400,000, but Wyrobek said that the program is all about lowering that cost over time. Within a few years, Berger added, the goal is to reduce the cost to that of a car, although it's not clear yet if that would mean a luxury car or a standard one.

The timing of that equation is also hard to predict. Asked how long it will take to get robots like the PR2 into the mainstream, Berger said that "people have been saying robotics are 10 years away for a long time, and I'm going to stick with that."

Wyrobek was asked why the PR2 is not as cute as Willow Garage could have made it. He explained that the robot's designers intentionally made it look stupid "because a robot, from the human perspective, is as dumb as a rock."

The PR2, he added, is not a kid-safe toy, and its designers wanted to set the right expectations for it. Despite the ability of those who work on its software to make it do innovative things, the robot is still only about as capable as a laptop computer.

Three major questions
To Scott Hassan, who founded Willow Garage in 2006, the PR2, which has been in the works for two-and-a-half years, is about answering three major questions. The first, he told the crowd of several hundred Silicon Valley luminaries, is why are robots good? The second is, why don't we have them? And finally, how are we going to make them happen?

The answer to the first is that by enabling automation, it's possible to dramatically increase production. "I want to play big games," Hassan said. "Robots will do great things for our economy."

We don't have mass adoption of robots, he continued, because it has always been hard to seamlessly and efficiently get mechanical and electrical engineers and software developers to work together, meaning that robots are "hard to do," and without a frictionless culture of investment, research and development, and the follow-on creation of a large-enough market, a chicken-and-egg problem persists.

And finally, he argued that by opening up robotics hardware and software, Willow Garage is going to broaden the scope and adoption of robots by making it possible for the entire robotics community to continually build on the work of others.

"At Willow Garage, we don't intend to own this [the robotics ecosystem]," Hassan said. "We don't intend to be gatekeepers....We don't intend to slow this down. We want to accelerate it. My vision is to make robots happen and make this an industry."

Milestone four
According to Cousins, the PR2 beta program is the culmination of a series of R&D milestones that the company has been working on for the last two-and-a-half years. "This milestone is the big one for us," Cousins said.

This week, as many as six members of each of the 11 teams that won the use of a PR2 came to Menlo Park for a five-day workshop geared toward getting them up-to-speed with their new robots and giving them the maximum opportunity to learn how to work with them while also having Willow Garage personnel on hand to help out.

"Robotics is usually a slow-moving [field]," said Berger. "In the last couple of days, we've seen a ton of new things happening."

The PR2 beta program began earlier in the year with a U.C. Berkeley project in which a student programmed one of the robots to successfully fold towels . Now, the 11 teams will be working a disparate set of problems, many of which are built around helping people with everyday around-the-house tasks.

In the future, said Pieter Abbeel, a faculty member in Berkeley's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program, the main thing missing from the field of robotics will be software. That's a major leap forward from the past, he suggested, when the field was missing everything, including hardware, software, and collaboration.

And that's why Willow Garage has put the PR2s in the hands of the 11 teams--to create the software that will allow the open-source robots to handle a wide variety of tasks. "If it has the software, [the PR2 can] do it," said Abbeel.

While the Berkeley team began with the towel-folding project, now that it has its own PR2, it is going to focus on several tasks, Abbeel said. One is to see if the team can teach the robot to perform tasks such as making meals or doing laundry, simply by demonstrating them. And that involves designing software that will allow the robot to understand what it's seeing. If it sees someone opening a bottle, Abbeel said, can it understand the challenges involved? And can it recognize items it sees, like plates and mugs, or can it tell if a person is sitting or standing, eating or walking? "The robot could say, I think that person's eating right now," Abbeel explained, "so it's a good time to go clean their bathroom."

Another major thrust of the Berkeley project will be to see if the team can get the PR2 and people to act in unison. That means, Abbeel said, working toward getting the robot to understand situations and, when it doesn't, to ask questions of the people around it.

But each of the 11 teams has its own set of problems it wants to solve, and Willow Garage clearly believes each of them is worth helping out. The final teams were chosen from 78 around the world that submitted applications, and all told, the PR2 robots in the beta program are worth about $4 million.

To Dominick van Thienen and Koen Buys, both part of the Belgian PR2 team, taking part in the program has been a great experience, in part, Buys said, because the PR2 is "a dream platform."

But the best part of being involved in the program, the two men said, is the PR2's ease of use, and the fact that the open-source nature of the software and hardware allows everyone involved to share their experiences and their expertise rather than try to reinvent the wheel.

"You have the state-of-the-art in your hand," van Thienen said. "Otherwise, you have to spend years and years to get where others are already."

 

ARTICLE DISCUSSION

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

Hot on CNET

The Next Big Thing

Consoles go wide and far beyond gaming with power and realism.